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'SpongeBob SquarePants' is soaking up viewers

Adults, children tuning in to the wet and wisdom of the square yellow sponge who lives in a pineapple

Tuesday, July 02, 2002

By L.A. Johnson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

David Rowe first saw SpongeBob SquarePants on CNBC a few months ago.

Laura Boylan enjoys "SpongeBob SquarePants" while watching with friends at the VFW in Carnegie on Saturday. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette photos)

"He was standing on the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange," said Rowe, a University of Pittsburgh associate professor of infectious diseases and microbiology. "How could SpongeBob be opening up the New York Stock Exchange?"

Rowe didn't know who SpongeBob was, then. He just saw someone dressed as a yellow sponge wearing a white shirt, red tie and brown square pants ringing the opening bell. His curiosity was piqued.

Some time later, while channel-surfing between Fox News and CNN, he stumbled across the "SpongeBob SquarePants" cartoon on Nickelodeon and watched his first installment of TV's No. 1 kid's show. (It was a Mrs. Puff's Boating School episode.)

"I became an instant fan," said Rowe, who now watches the show with his children, Olivia, 4, and Tommy, 2. "It's more like 'Rocky and Bullwinkle.' It's allegorical and has that ridiculousness."

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who get "SpongeBob SquarePants" and those who don't. SpongeBob -- the absorbent, yellow and porous protagonist -- has joined the Three Stooges and "The Osbournes" in splitting civilization into fundamental get-it-or-don't-get-it camps.

Evidently, quite a lot of people get SpongeBob, and not just kids.

In February, 56.1 million people watched "SpongeBob SquarePants," including 32.5 million children age 2 to 11, 13.3 million youngsters 9 to 14 and 18.6 million adults 18 to 49, according to Nielsen Cume Data. During the week of May 13, 14 of the top 25 basic cable shows were episodes of "SpongeBob SquarePants."

"Fourteen out of 25," said professor Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "That's a grip on a medium."

Local fans come from all walks of life. They're postal workers, high school principals, television and radio announcers, lawyers and law students, ministers, teachers and airport baggage handlers.

 
 

"SpongeBob SquarePants" airs on Nickelodeon at 8:30 a.m., 5 and 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, at 10 and 10:30 a.m.

Saturdays and Sundays and in special SpongeBob marathons 2 to 5 p.m. on Mondays.


Some silly 'SpongeBob' facts

   
 

However, it's entirely possible for someone who hasn't had contact with children or adults who watch the show to have no idea who SpongeBob is, Thompson said.

The show airs seven days a week, and, in this post-"Seinfeld" era, it's the subject of office water-cooler chat each morning.

The animation of "SpongeBob SquarePants" mixes '50s and '60s styles, shapes and colors with a certain surrealism. It is reminiscent of the quiet, less action-packed cartoons many baby boomers remember from their youth, Thompson said.

"It's like having an aquarium in your living room and instead of just swimming around, the fish engage in narrative stories," he said.

Also, many baby boomers may be drawn to the show because many actors they're familiar with provide voices for the characters, including Bill Fagerbakke, who played Dauber on ABC's "Coach," as the voice of Patrick Starfish; Marion Ross of "Happy Days" fame as the voice of Grandma in the "Grandma's Kisses" episode, "Seinfeld's" J. Peterman, John O'Hurley as the voice of Neptune in the "Neptune's Spatula" episode, and Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway from "McHale's Navy" as the voices of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy, respectively.

Tom Kenny, an actor and stand-up comedian who does the voice of SpongeBob, describes the absorbent one's voice as not really that of a child or a man, but more a man-boy.

"It's sort of a helium voice," said Kenny, 39, who also does the voice of Dog in Nickelodeon's "CatDog." "It's Jerry Lewis meets Elroy Jetson, almost like a little person, very Munchkin-like."

Kenny, who was a regular on HBO's "Mr. Show with Bob and David" and has appeared as the office loser Persky on "Just Shoot Me," knows the character so well, he feels as if he just channels SpongeBob.

"I'm the host," jokes Kenny, who names "Band Geeks" and the "Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy" episodes among his favorites. "I'm the host body for a sponge."

The cartoon's success has surprised even the show's creator and executive producer Stephen Hillenburg.

"When you set out to do a show about a sponge, you don't expect the kind of appeal that he's had," said Hillenburg, 40, who has a bachelor's degree in natural science with a marine biology emphasis from Humboldt State University and a master's in experimental animation from the California Institute of Arts.

He suspects what people enjoy about the show are the characters.

"The characters are likable," said Hillenburg, who begins work on a SpongeBob movie in September that's slated for release in 2004. "Even the villainous Plankton, he's still flawed and you still root for him in a way, and the style of humor is simple and it's about human behavior, and everybody can identify with that."

SpongeBob lives in the undersea community of Bikini Bottom in a two-bedroom pineapple with his pet snail, Gary, who meows like a cat. He loves his job as a fry cook at the Krusty Krab fast-food restaurant.

"There's something about [SpongeBob's] wonderful, optimistic view of the world that certainly suits me as a pediatrician," said Dr. Jonathan Finder, 41, of Regent Square. "I take care of children with cystic fibrosis, and I have to have a positive, optimistic persona."

SpongeBob's neighbor, the curmudgeonly octopus Squidward Tentacles, works as a waiter-cashier at the Krusty Krab. Squidward subscribes to Martha Stewart Living, enjoys interpretive dance and the clarinet.

"I love Squidward because he's so grumpy and he's clearly very, very intelligent, and yet he's working this menial job that's well below his skill level, sort of this underappreciated artist," said Finder, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Pitt's medical school who regularly watches the show with his children Zachary, 5, and Benjamin, 2. "I consider SpongeBob up there with 'The Sopranos' in terms of quality and writing."

Patrick Starfish, dimwitted and pink, is SpongeBob's best friend. They engage in all manner of mischief, from taking the wrong bus out of town to hunting jellyfish to lair-sitting for their favorite, aged superheroes, Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy.

"He's just goofy, and he's just dumb," Laura Boylan, 37, of Carnegie, said of Patrick. "You gotta love him."

Sandy Cheeks -- the thrill-seeking girl squirrel who is part fitness nut, part scientist, part extreme sports fanatic -- wears diving gear and lives in an air-pressurized dome in Bikini Bottom. She and SpongeBob have a healthy sports rivalry and enjoy stealthily karate chopping each other.

"I watched it once and I was hooked," said Mary Linn Menegon, 24, a chemist from Canonsburg who learned of the show through a colleague. "I loved it."

Menegon has collected SpongeBob figurines, key chains, mousepads, T-shirts and water bottles. She even wears SpongeBob wristbands when she plays with the Pittsburgh Piranhas women's ice hockey team.

After sounding the clarion call for adult SpongeBob fans, the Post-Gazette received more that 250 e-mails from landlubbing adult fans, 18 to 86, from Pittsburgh to San Francisco, all dying to talk about SpongeBob.

Harold Jordan of East Liberty initially didn't like "SpongeBob SquarePants," but it came on after the "Rugrats" and he just never changed the channel. Now, he's grown accustomed to the little guy.

"It's cute and I like the way they portray a different life under the water," said Jordan, 38, a data specialist at the Western Pennsylvania Hospital.

Finder loves the show's wry sense of humor and self-mocking.

"When SpongeBob and Patrick are outside and light a campfire, one turns to the other and says, 'If we're under water, how can we be having a campfire?' " he said. "The minute they ask the question, the campfire goes out."

"The entire concept of an underwater world [where you] can mop floors and burn fires is comical," agrees Amy Wetzler, 25, of Wilmerding.

The SpongeBob diehards collect all sorts of SpongeBob merchandise, which is estimated to be a $500 million industry this year, according to licensing industry analysts.

After professor Rowe confided his love of SpongeBob to his graduate students, they started bringing him SpongeBob memorabilia for his office, including a poster, SpongeBob-shaped CheeseNips, the Wendy's Kids' Meal SpongeBob toys and a SpongeBob glass.

One fan who contacted the PG owns a jellyfishing net. Another has a SpongeBob patch on his ice hockey pants. Another has a "SpongeBob SquarePants" faceplate on her cell phone. Others admit to buying the kids' meals at Wendy's for the SpongeBob toys that come with them or even conning children into getting the toys for them.

"I became an instant fan [of 'SpongeBob']," says David Rowe, a University of Pittsburgh associate professor of infectious diseases and microbiology. "It's more like 'Rocky and Bullwinkle.' It's allegorical and has that ridiculousness."

Fans find the episodes funny no matter how many times they've seen them and admit watching the show without any children around. One fan enjoys watching the show on a 56-inch TV screen. Other fans sing the show's opening song instead of "Happy Birthday" at parties. On a recent charter flight to the Dominican Republic, passengers broke out into the SpongeBob theme song, wrote online travel writer Anita Dunham-Potter. An area priest referred to SpongeBob in a Sunday sermon. Fans have even had their picture taken with SpongeBob before a Pirates game.

They dress up in SpongeBob costumes for parties and foot races. At least that's what Colleen Everett of Forest Hills did. She dressed as SpongeBob for last Halloween's Cystic Fibrosis Run Like Hell 5K. (To see her costume, visit http://www-2.cs.cmu.edu/~colleen/spongebob.gif)

"I didn't time at all, but it was fun to run," said Everett, 37, a communications manager at Carnegie Mellon University's computer science school. "I was amazed at the kids who wanted to take a picture with me, and there were adults who thought I was a cheese."

SpongeBob is the topic of Saturday morning conference calls among friends, and the centerpiece of occasional Saturday morning gatherings at the Carnegie VFW Hall.

"It's just silly and clever," said Boylan, who watches the show with her daughter, Shelby, 4, and with friends at the Carnegie VFW from time to time. "The people that write it must be warped."

Loretta Weigner of Carnegie knew she was hooked the first time she heard Gary, SpongeBob's pet snail, meow. She loves the sight gags for children and the more clever humor aimed at adults.

"Besides [SpongeBob's] silly jokes, I like that it really doesn't have violence in it and nobody really gets hurt," said Weigner, 52, who tends bar at the Carnegie VFW. "They may argue and fight like a real family, but they love each other and depend on each other and are there for each other in a pinch."

Many fans point to the show's positive, upbeat nature as soothing during tough times in a cold, cruel, adult world. Jordan just believes SpongeBob is good for the soul.

"When you grow up, you grow old," he said. "You've got to keep that inner child alive."

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